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Tilting Again

Tilting Again

Author: Richard Rapaport
Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Date:  November 13, 2001

America's new best friend, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, has been a busy strongman since September 11. Weekly, U.S. Cabinet secretaries, the British prime minister, generals and diplomats arrive at Islamabad's President's House to pay court. Saturday, at a joint press conference in New York, Major Gen. Musharraf was given President Bush's public seal of approval and a billion dollars in aid.

All tailored suits and crisp manners, Gen. Musharraf is very much the model of a modern major general, fitting Margaret Thatcher's characterization of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom we can do business. Superficially, the match seems reasonable.

Musharraf's Anglo-Saxon-isms and the Pakistani military's British personality have helped smooth the way for the West's "tilt" toward the Islamic world's sole nuclear power. But the United States might want to dampen its enthusiasm for Musharraf and his "good guy" status; conjuring, as it does, the Philippine's Ferdinand Marcos, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, South Vietnam's Nguyen Van Thieu, Indonesia's Suharto and Cambodia's Lon Nol, all authoritarian "new best friends" for whom American benediction and foreign aid did little to ensure their shaky governments or even further long-term American interests.

Similarly, this latest manifestation of America's foreign policy propensity for taking the easy way out by aligning ourselves with the Pakistani dictator will not necessarily help the United States achieve its goals of stability and peace in South Asia or further the battle against Islamic radicalism. The deal with Pakistan indicates an inability on the part of the United States to think through long-term strategies, and is shameless in its transparency. Only last summer, Pakistan, the chief backer of Afghanistan's Taliban, was under international sanctions for violating the nuclear-test-ban treaty, supporting terrorists in Kashmir and for the anti-democratic coup that brought Musharraf to power.

There is precedent for America's latest "tilt"; the phrase "tilting toward Pakistan" has been in the U.S. foreign policy lexicon since the Nixon administration, when the United States supported another modern major general, Yaya Khan, who declared himself president of Pakistan in 1969.

Then as now, America's South Asian tilt meant cooling relations with Pakistan's archenemy, India. It also prevents recognizing that India, rather than Pakistan, should be the stable anchor of U.S. regional policy.

The logic is a powerful one. India is a nation created very much in America's image; a huge, market-driven economic power, which shares a common heritage of English-speaking democracy with the United States. India and the United States are the world's two largest constitutional democracies. Both have strong political parties committed to representational government. Even during crisis, India has stuck to its democratic guns. By contrast, for half its history, Pakistan has been ruled by "modern major generals" such as Musharraf, who have toppled elected leaders.

This totalitarian tendency derives from a fragility that has plagued Pakistan since its independence. Pakistan's diverse, often-warring ethnic groups have meant a fractious history, with the Pakistani military periodically providing the glue preventing national disintegration. The one unifying issue that has helped hold Pakistan together is the goal of taking the Muslim-majority territory, Kashmir, from India. Kashmir has been the spark for wars and continued tension with India largely because Pakistan's political disunity necessitates a unifying crusade against a foreign devil.

During these conflicts, India, with a population more diverse than Pakistan's, maintained its democratic instincts and institutions. In democracy's greatest test, the Congress Party, which ruled India since independence in 1947, lost its parliamentary majority in 1977 and accepted its role as the opposition party without so much as a whisper of retaining control through unconstitutional means.

But even as a democratic paragon, the party's socialist ideology clouded U. S.-Indian relations since the late 1940s. Nor did advocacy for nonalignment by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, endear India to the United States. For Americans, India has been a diplomatic prickly pear, ironically reminiscent of the United States' own spiny world image.

Since the Cold War's end, much has changed in India. Its command economy is transforming into a powerhouse capitalist engine. India has played a crucial role in America's technology primacy by providing thousands of engineers and software professionals working in the United States and India. With a middle class of 400 million -- and growing -- India is an increasingly important consumerist partner of the United States. Demographics alone compel:

India's population of 1.033 billion is eight times Pakistan's. Included are 145 million Muslims, equal to the total population of Pakistan and only surpassed by Indonesia as the world's largest Islamic country.

India's Muslims are loyal citizens. Which raises the puzzling question of why, while the United States struggles to find linguists and other experts to unravel the Islamic terrorist conundrum, it has not turned to India which has its own large stake in defeating terrorism. In recent years, thousands of Indians have been killed by Kashmiri insurgents, many trained at the al Qaeda camps that produced the September 11 hijackers. Far closer relations with India could provide a bonanza of intelligence capabilities for the United States.

Indians have a right to feel let down by this latest tilt, which the Times of India calls "The U.S.-Pak Lovefest." This is especially true because of the reassessment of U.S.-Indian relations during the Clinton administration.

In 1999, President Clinton delivered an electrifying speech to the Indian Parliament outlining the seeming arrival of intimate relations between the two nations. The speech, a milestone in U.S.-Indian relations, received little notice here.

Even the Bush administration, seemingly determined to undermine all things Clintonian, decided that the rapprochement between India and the United States should continue. Unfortunately September 11's shock has provoked yet another reflexive "tilt" toward Pakistan.

Whatever the tactical gain, U.S. policymakers need to reassess the strategic realities of betting on Musharraf, the fourth general to name himself president of a country that is a poster-child for political instability.

Musharraf is likely to succumb to the political turmoil that undid each of his military dictator-predecessors. And, ironically, greater distance from the United States in the face a rising tide of pro-Taliban and Islamic sentiment in Pakistan may help Musharraf survive longer than will the perception of his status as an American puppet.

Most importantly, America must recognize that it is the superpower India, not the political and economic basket-case Pakistan, that is key to long-term peace and stability in South Asia, and perhaps even to a victory in the war on terrorism. With a solution to Kashmir unlikely, and a violent, perhaps even nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan a distinct possibility, America needs to think clearly about where its true long-term interests lie and the dangers posed by a Pakistan emboldened by another U.S. tilt.

(Richard Rapaport has written about India for Wired and Forbes ASAP.)

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